Rough Flight

Most of the time during the excruciatingly long Flight, I was wishing it would finally end already. 

At first, during the distressing, taut crisis in the air, my anxiety was choking me.  Last month, flying back to the States from Thailand, I had five hours of violent turbulence, where food and silverware were flying off trays, flight crew members were sitting belted into their jump seats counting their worry beads, and elderly Asian people were defying the order to remain buckled by wandering up and down the aisles moaning.  On that flight, I reached a point where I couldn’t cope with the tension anymore, so I took a melatonin pill and passed out knowing that I’d either wake up to a restored calm or I wouldn’t wake up.  But watching Flight, I couldn’t take a pill, and it was clear that the tension was only just beginning.

My inquietude came from what I disliked about the film more than from the drama unfolding on screen, however.  To begin with, as a tremulous flyer at best, I found watching Pilot William Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) consume vodka, beer and cocaine just before flying infuriating and terrifying.  His arrogant, self-satisfied, cocksure, un-empathetic demeanor repelled me.  As much as I love Washington’s work — and he played this part with absolute aplomb — I couldn’t find anything sympathetic about this character, and while I kept waiting for an arc and an epiphany that would make me care, I never quite forgave him for being so cavalier a jet pilot.


It got worse as the plot thickened.  Or rather as the flimsy rubber band of a plot stretched itself and with it my suspension of disbelief.  Whitaker boards the plane like a rock star, primed and ready for his performance.  He downs some black coffee with “lots of sugar, lots of sugar” and guzzles a few hits from the oxygen supply before he wrestles wantonly with bad weather on takeoff.  Then, just as they are easing into the 35 remaining minutes of the flight from Orlando to Atlanta, something goes terribly awry, culminating in the crash of the plane.

Okay, this is where it gets sticky.  And by sticky, I mean it sticks in my craw that I can’t figure out what the film was about.  We watched the fearless pilot order his copilot to push the limits of the elevator (the piece at the rear of an airplane that controls its pitch), instruct his flight crew captain to push some manual control levers, invert the plane so it could stabilize and then glide into a field, and we saw the plane crash.

There was never a moment where we thought Whitaker was blameless.  Yet it seems as though director Robert Zemekis wants us to find him innocent.  And of course, the movie is about the investigation to ascertain whether mechanical failure or human error cost the lives of the two flight attendants and four passengers who died and destroyed the plane.

The movie lurches about long after the storm and the crash are over.  As depth of Whitaker’s alcoholism reveals itself, we get to see Washington deftly embody a truly self-destructive man.  Tamara Tunie, Kelly Reilly and Bruce Greenwood provide terrific foils, and Don Cheadle once again disappears into a role that’s clearly a lot more vivid than it was on the written page.  For added Oscar buzz, John Goodman once again steals the light from everyone else with his portrayal of Harling Mays, who could just as well have been named Walter Sobchak (Lebowski’s sidekick). But overall the film is very dissatisfying.

There is no real arc.  We see the alcoholism ebb and flow, but we don’t see for one minute any of its roots or the path of its destruction.  We know more about Nicole’s (Reilly) drug addiction than we do about Whitaker’s, and when he has his turnaround at the very end, there is no real motivation for it.  The epiphanal moment appears elusive of inducement — he has a brief moment where he cannot defame the memory of his heroic flight attendant/lover who has died saving a little boy’s life, but it’s not enough; his estranged son, his ex-wife, his friends, his career were all inconsequential, but a fleeting affair with a young woman makes him come to his senses?  Well, that’s just senseless.

Zemeckis has a great opportunity here.  He could explore the infrastructure of an industry that teeters on the brink of disaster but does nothing to seek out and clean up the source and substance of the kind of abuses this pilot flaunts.  We come to find out that everyone has known all along that Whitaker’s a lying drunk, and no one has done one blessed thing to get him to stop.  How can this be?  I want an investigation.

Alternatively, Zemeckis could explore the root of the disease Whitaker suffers.  But until the sudden turn-around at the end (oh, did I spoil this for you?  Sorry!), all we see is a man who loves being drunk, wallows in the oblivion he creates for himself but who never reveals how he got here.

In the end, though it should have been obvious from the beginning (as my friend pointed out, the damage to the elevator, which caused all the trouble, was clearly the result of Whitaker’s cowboy antics near the start of the film), the film allows that Whitaker really is guilty.  (Were we in denial right along with the whole aviation industry?) He deserves to go to jail.  And, “though it may sound strange coming from a guy in here (sweeps arms, indicating co-prisoners in an institutional meeting room), for the first time I’m free.” Hunh?

All of a sudden, as though Zemeckis realized 130 minutes into the edit that he needed an ending so he went back and shot one quickly, Whitaker admits he’s an alcoholic, becomes a devoted AA member, creates a stable relationship with Nicole and reconciles with his son Will, nicknamed Knuckles.

Flight ends with Knuckles visiting Whip in jail.  He must write his college essay, and he has chose to write about “The Most Interesting Man I Never Knew,” a.k.a., his father.  Will turns on his recording device, saying, “So, tell me Dad.  Who are you?”

Whitaker hugs the boy tearfully and answers,  “That’s a good question.”

You betcha.

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A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children: A Remembrance of Charlotte Esther Robinson Swett – Part I

Charlotte Esther Robinson, University of Vermont, Class of ’44

 Charlotte Esther Robinson Swett, my mother, never knew how very much I admired her.  We were, for many years, closer than most mothers and daughters, but she couldn’t know the depth of my esteem for two reasons.  First, this complex woman never quite internalized the breadth of her inestimable value; and second, I never quite understood the scope of my emotions.  So I write this now for my children and grandchildren.  They need to know.

When I was small, my cousins referred to our grandmother as Mama, but I could never muster the word; she wasn’t anything like a Mama to me.  She was harshly critical, emotionally cruel, and I recognized early on that she had not even earned the right to that moniker from the woman I knew was my Mama.  Grandma had suffered terribly in her life, and in her last twenty years, after she found sobriety and a modicum of peace, especially after my grandfather died and liberated her from her subservience, she became a friend and a confidante, but it was clear to me that as a mother, she had provided no model for my mother to emulate, had failed to nurture and protect her daughters, and had damaged them all irreparably.

My mama shared her life with me in timid drabs over late night vigils.  My father was a traveling salesman, and he was often on the road into the wee hours of the night; it was I who kept her company while she waited, always frightened that the worse might have happened.  Fearing the worst was a learned response to a life of worsts, but she found them difficult to tell, difficult to explore, and until I was twelve, all I really knew were the funny stories.  One was the story of her birth, which she told between gales of girlish giggles that invariably made me laugh too . . . until I was old enough to get it.

Picture Postcard Vienna, 1918

“I was born on a crystal clear Viennese night in April, 1923,” she would begin; she was only eleven months younger than her sister Thea, born in 1922, who was four years younger than their first sister Herma, born in 1918.  “Mama told me there wasn’t a cloud in the sky outside her window, just a glittering sliver of moon.  But poor Papa was devastated. He was sure this time he would finally have a boy.  He had put his head at Mama’s belly, and he was certain that this time he would be father to a son. He was so excited he could not sit still for most of the 9 months of the pregnancy.  I often imagine my Papa’s reaction when the doctor came out of the delivery room to tell him he had a big, robust, healthy daughter!  He went crazy.  Mama didn’t see him for weeks . . . maybe even months.  The story changed whenever she told me.  But when he did come back, he was determined not to be disappointed, and from then on he encouraged me to be a tomboy, which was just fine by me!